La Pirogue: the Myth of Europe and the Realities of the Journey

by Eleanor Paynter, PhD Student, Department of Comparative Studies

La Pirogue (dir. Moussa Touré, 2012), screened by Global Mobility at the Wexner Center for the Arts on March 1, is, in many ways, about a gamble: 31 people sail from Senegal to the Canary Islands in a fishing vessel not meant for the open sea. La Pirogue recounts migration as not only the traversing of physical space, but as an internal journey as well. We learn the different motivations and hopes of nearly each migrant on board and watch as they are threatened by discord and by the sea itself. At the same time, La

Pirogue reminds us of what Douglas Massey and other migration scholars enunciated in the early 1990s: that the movement of a single person across a border always involves a larger network. Although most of this story unfolds within the tight quarters of the pirogue, any attempt to map the narrative would result in a many-threaded web reaching far beyond the boat itself – or Senegal or Spain. Some on board hope to reach relatives in France; once settled, they plan to bring over their spouses and children. They are motivated by stories of musical and athletic stardom, economic success, medical treatment, and employment. The film poignantly loads the Goor Fitt (“man of courage”) with its 31 passengers, rations of rice, a back-up engine, and these narratives.



A stunning screenshot from the film. The solidarity of 31 Africans, fleeing to Spain in a canoe, is tested once they run into trouble.

One of the most striking lines in La Pirogue comes near the beginning of the film, as the wife of protagonist Baye Laye suggests that he not leave Senegal for Spain because “Europe is going through a crisis,” a reference to the 2008 economic crisis and its global effects. It’s compelling to consider the shift of context that has occurred between the making of La Pirogue, in 2012, and of Gianfranco Rosi’s Italian documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) just four years later, shown by the Global Mobility Project in January. Over the last two years, of course, Europe has been said to be undergoing another crisis, one marked by the arrival of more than 1.3 million migrants in 2015 and several hundred thousand since.

Global Mobility Project team member Vera Brunner-Sung and Associate Professor in History Ousman Kobo

At the March 1 viewing, discussion of La Pirogue included comments to contextualize the narrative in light of Senegalese political and economic history, as well to put it in conversation with Fuocoammare. This discussion was led by Vera Brunner-Sung, Global Mobility faculty member and Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, and Ousman Kobo, Assistant Professor in the History Department and scholar of West African history. Prof. Brunner-Sung drew our attention to the theme of “the losing bet,” introduced in the wrestling match of the first scene. Prof. Kobo suggested that the film is commenting not only on migration, but on religious tensions in Senegal; within the microcosmic society in the boat, passengers argue over rituals and rites involving Muslim prayers or the placement of a talisman.

The pairing of La Pirogue with Fuocoammare provoked conversation about narrative perspectives, and about hope. Rosi’s recent documentary portrays the arrival of asylum seekers to the Italian island of Lampedusa; although it does not focus on individual migrant narratives, it does emphasize their rescue and entrance into EU territory. Touré’s 2012 film instead depicts the intimate narrative of a group of migrants as they prepare for and set out towards Europe on a journey which not all survive.

This pairing and the discussion with Profs. Brunner-Sung and Kodo also reminded those of us in the audience that although Baye Laye’s story is fictional, it is based on the migration of thousands of young men in just such vessels over at least the last decade, and many of these journeys end in tragedy. A note at the end of the film states that at least 5,000 of the 30,000 migrants who attempted this voyage from West Africa prior to the making of this film did not survive. As Prof. Kodo remarked, “This is the reality of our time.”

Viewers left the theater quietly, many of us still taking it in.


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